Deep Thoughts: The Link between Oral Health and Dementia
You’ve always known that oral hygiene is important, but it may be more significant than anyone imagined just a few decades ago. Newer studies have made jaw-dropping connections between oral health and long-term brain resilience. Let’s take a look at the research.
More than Just Pearly Whites
While having a beautiful smile is one great incentive for taking care of your mouth, research in the last few decades has uncovered advantages that reach well beyond vanity. We now know that poor oral hygiene can contribute to:
Researchers have also been looking into the connection between a higher prevalence of bad bacteria and cognitive impairment as people age. Three recent reviews of studies have uncovered some interesting information.
The Tooth Loss and Dementia Connection
Poor oral hygiene and harmful bacteria in the mouth can result in periodontal disease and tooth loss.4 Researchers have also noticed a connection between tooth loss and cognitive decline, and several studies have been published.
A review supported by the National Institute on Aging compiled information from the 14 most relevant of these studies. Researchers reviewed the health and death records of over 34,000 people, 4,689 of whom suffered from various cognitive impairments including dementia.5
The review concluded that patients with a greater number of missing teeth had an astonishing 48% increased risk for cognitive impairment, and a 28% greater risk for dementia. The study also showed that their risks increased with each tooth lost.5
Dental Plaque Leads to Brain Plaques
Another large review of studies in China looked at the connections between Alzheimer's Disease (AD) and oral hygiene. The study showed a strong connection between too many harmful bacteria in the mouth, and beta-amyloid protein “plaques” in the brain.6
Like that sticky plaque that can build up on your teeth, these plaques are a sticky build-up on nerve cells, blocking their ability to function. They seem to form when there is too much beta-amyloid protein in the brain. Brain plaques lead to cognitive impairment and AD.7
The researchers discussed the different ways oral infections can spread, leading to problems in the brain. Sometimes microbes travel toward the brain through the blood or nervous system. Other times, the infection can spread to the gut microbiome causing a cascade of inflammation through the body.6
Information gathered in the research showed that these infections may take place years before the onset of AD symptoms, and suggested that oral infections may help predict the risk for future dementia.6
NHANES Oral Analysis
A third analysis used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), reviewing information from over 6,000 participants over a span of up to 26 years. It provided similar information, finding that adults with gum disease were more likely to develop AD or other forms of dementia.8
The analysis also found that the oral bacteria Porphyromona gingivalis was the most common cause of gum disease. P gingivalis and other bacterial infections can cause a cascade of problems that result in plaques that cause AD.8
Fighting Back on Plaque
This solid evidence shows us more than ever that oral hygiene is important for the body including the brain. Luckily, there are lots of ways to take care of yourself to help prevent these health concerns.
Start with a healthy diet. Nutrients in foods can help keep your teeth and gums healthy. Including high fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which can help feed the healthy bacteria in your body for a balanced microbiome. Avoiding sugary foods and drinks can help prevent cavities.9
Keep your mouth clean by brushing your teeth and tongue twice every day and flossing daily. These practices help prevent harmful bacteria from taking over and causing problems in the mouth and beyond.10
See your dentist at least twice each year for routine checkups, or more often if recommended. Let your dentist know if you have any problems like bleeding gums or painful teeth.10
Help your little ones clean their mouths properly. Since evidence shows that bacteria today can cause problems years from now, it’s best to set healthy habits very early in life.10
Taking care of your oral health now may be a key to enjoying life to its fullest for years to come!
Gianos, Eugenia, Elizabeth A. Jackson, Astha Tejpal, Karen Aspry, James O’Keefe, Monica Aggarwal, Ankur Jain, et al. 2021. American Journal of Preventive Cardiology 7 (September): 100179.
Yenen, Zeynep, and Tijen Ataçağ. 2019. Journal of the Turkish German Gynecological Association 20 (4): 264–68.
Son, Minkook, Sangyong Jo, Ji Sung Lee, and Dong Hyun Lee. 2020. Scientific Reports 10 (1): 9576.
“Oral Hygiene.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2022. National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research.
“Tooth Loss in Older Adults Linked to Higher Risk of Dementia.” n.d. National Institute on Aging. Accessed October 14, 2022.
Narengaowa, Wei Kong, Fei Lan, Umer Farooq Awan, Hong Qing, and Junjun Ni. 2021. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience 15 (April): 633735.
“What Happens to the Brain in Alzheimer’s Disease?” n.d. National Institute on Aging. Accessed October 14, 2022.
“Large Study Links Gum Disease with Dementia.” n.d. National Institute on Aging. Accessed October 14, 2022.
“Nutrition and Oral Health.” 1985. West Virginia Dental Journal 59 (2): 19–20.
“Home Oral Care.” n.d. Accessed October 14, 2022. American Dental Association.